I’m crouched awkwardly on the floor of Xiyin Tang’s Columbia dorm room, peering up at her laptop as she shows me her first blog entries, a thirteen-year-old Xiyin’s musings on Good Charlotte and the perfidy of her friends. A Warhol Marilyn print gazes over our shoulders. “I always find myself more motivated to write things,” Xiyin, now nineteen, explains, “when I know that somebody, somewhere, might be reading it.”
From the age of eight, Xiyin, who grew up in Maryland, kept a private journal on her computer. But in fifth grade, she decided to go public and created two online periodicals: a fashion zine and a newsletter for “stories and novellas and whatnot.” In sixth grade, she began distributing her journal to two hundred readers. Even so, she still thought of this writing as personal.
“When I first started out with my LiveJournal, I was very honest,” she remembers. “I basically wrote as if there was no one reading it. And if people wanted to read it, then great.” But as more people linked to her, she became correspondingly self-aware. By tenth grade, she was part of a group of about one hundred mostly older kids who knew one another through “this web of MySpacing or LiveJournal or music shows.” They called themselves “The Family” and centered their attentions around a local band called Spoont. When a Family member commented on Xiyin’s entries, it was a compliment; when someone friended her, it was a bigger compliment. “So I would try to write things that would not put them off,” she remembers. “Things that were not silly. I tried to make my posts highly stylized and short, about things I would imagine people would want to read or comment on.”
Since she’s gone to college, she’s kept in touch with friends through her journal. Her romances have a strong online component. But lately she’s compelled by a new aspect of her public life, what she calls, with a certain hilarious spokeswoman-for-the-cause affect, the “party-photo phenomenon.” Xiyin clicks to her Facebook profile, which features eighty-eight photos. Some are snapshots. Some are modeling poses she took for a friend’s portfolio. And then there are her Misshapes shots: images from a popular party in Tribeca, where photographers shoot attendees against a backdrop. In these photos, Xiyin wears eighties fashions—a thick belt and an asymmetrical top that give me my own high-school flashback—and strikes a world-weary pose. “To me, or to a lot of people, it’s like, why go to a party if you’re not going to get your picture taken?”
Among this gallery, one photo stands out: a window-view shot of Xiyin walking down below in the street, as if she’d been snapped by a spy camera. It’s part of a series of “stalker photos” a friend has been taking, she informs me: he snaps surreptitious, paparazzi-like photos of his friends and then uploads them and tags the images with their names, so they’ll come across them later. “Here’s one where he caught his friend Hannah talking on the phone.”
Xiyin knows there’s a scare factor in having such a big online viewership—you could get stalked for real, or your employer could bust you for partying. But her actual experience has been that if someone is watching, it’s probably a good thing. If you see a hot guy at a party, you can look up his photo and get in touch. When she worked at American Apparel, management posted encouraging remarks on employee MySpace pages. A friend was offered an internship by a magazine’s editor in chief after he read her profile. All sorts of opportunities—romantic, professional, creative—seem to Xiyin to be directly linked to her willingness to reveal herself a little.
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